Biology, Destiny, and Bad Science

Biology, Destiny, and Bad Science

There are ominous signs that new versions of biological determinism have returned, with the claim that women are not meant, by nature or by psyche, for achievement. Myths about gender difference now “prove” that women should be confined to jobs that use their special “relational” abilities, that women’s brains are not designed for leadership, and that they “cheerfully choose” low-paying jobs. We hear that even when they do get good jobs, the smartest women reject them for home and hearth. The media have embraced this narrative with gusto, and there is a real danger that these ideas are seeping into law and public policy as well.

The limitations of women’s brains are on the front line in this battle of ideas.

One trendy new theory is that women’s brain structures make them ill-suited for leadership. In The Essential Difference (featured on the September 8, 2003, cover of Newsweek), psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University claims the male brain is the “systematizing brain,” while the female’s is the “empathizing” brain.

What are the advantages of the male brain? They include mastery of hunting and tracking; trading, achieving, and maintaining power; gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression; and taking on leadership roles. The advantages of the female brain? Here we find making friends, mothering, gossip, and “reading” your partner.

It’s interesting how all the leadership roles in society require the male brain, while the female brain lends itself to the domestic arena. All those women lawyers, journalists, accountants, and investment bankers are clearly out of place. Not only are empathizing women expected to pick up on what those close to them are feeling, but, according to Baron-Cohen, any other person’s emotion triggers empathy in the “natural” woman. Describing this mechanism, he says, “Imagine that you not only see Jane’s pain but you also automatically feel concern, wince, and feel a desire to run across and help alleviate her pain.” Would any woman so fully occupied with caring for everybody around her have the ability to lead others? It’s not likely. She’d barely have the time or the energy to get dressed in the morning. She’d also be a prime candidate for depression and burnout. And why should anyone support more legislation backing women’s equal access to good jobs if women’s brains suit them only for taking care of others and make them incapable of leading?

Baron-Cohen’s work on empathy is a distressing example of sweeping generalization based on almost no credible data. He doesn’t bother to ask whether women’s empathy is a product of their brain structures or (more likely) of the fact that society assigns them the job of caring for others. These are the jobs that Baron-Cohen suggests for women: counselors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group faci...